Saturn’s rings captivated Galileo when he saw them for the first time nearly 400 years ago.
But, last week, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope discovered what Galileo missed — a gigantic halo.
“This is one supersized ring,” said Anne Verbiscer, an astronomer at the University of Virginia in a press release. “If you could see the ring (from Earth), it would span the width of two full moons’ worth of sky, one on either side of Saturn.”
The ring hasn’t been seen until now because it was not seen in the visible spectrum of light, said Steve Best, research engineer for the Auburn Space Research Institute.
Scientists began using other wavelengths of light, in this case infrared, to see the space-borne dust.
This ring is not like the flat thin rings people typically imagine circling Saturn. This new ring is thick, similar to a motorcycle tire, Best said.
The ring consists of a thin band of ice and dust starting approximately 3.7 million miles away from the planet and stretching as far as 7.4 million miles away.
This discovery may hold the answer to a century-old question about one of Saturn’s moons, Iapetus, which lies within this newly discovered halo, Best said.
Iapetus has an unusually dark side, which has baffled astronomers for centuries. Some speculated it was in some way caused by Saturn’s darker moon Phoebe, Best said.
“The beautiful, detailed colored images of the rings of Saturn sent back by Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 spacecrafts in the early ‘80s fascinated people around the world,” Best said. “(However), these images still did not explain the appearance of Iapetus.”
Astronomers who are convinced Phoebe had a role in this phenomenon went searching for evidence of a potential dust cloud generated by the moon.
“It was thought perhaps some of the debris from Phoebe was impacting and coating Iapetus, making it dark,” Best said.
That is exactly what Verbiscer and her colleagues found.
Spitzer’s infrared lenses were able to spot the cool band of dust sparkling under infrared light.
“The particles are so far apart that if you were to stand in the ring, you wouldn’t even know it,” Verbiscer said in a press release.
The ring’s observations were made before Spitzer exhausted its coolant reserves in May. The telescope is now on its “warm” mission.
“This recent discovery is the result of man’s insatiable thirst to explore, learn and understand the world and universe around him,” Best said. “Now finally, using modern technology of space-based telescopes, it appears we understand slightly better another small detail about immense, infinite universe we live in.”
This article was originally published in The Auburn Plainsman on 10/15/2009.
I was awarded the Graphic Design Award of Excellence at the 2010 PRCA Medallion Awards for Saturn’s New Ring. Published in an October 2009 edition of The Auburn Plainsman accompanying a story about the discovery of another enormous halo surrounding Saturn. The graphic was made from scratch entirely in Adobe Photoshop. The star fields were created by adding noise, then erasing. Bright stars were used with simple solar flares. Saturn’s rings are created from a spiral with added noise. The center is erased and then the ring is moved into position.